The only thing I like more than talking about movie sub-genres is discovering new ones. I don't know if I'm the only person who refers to Roland Emmerich's doomsday epics as "disaster porn," but I'm fully prepared to take credit for the phrase. Oz the Great and Powerful follows in the footsteps of the 2010 film Alice in Wonderland, another bloated, CG-heavy retread of a beloved property. I'm still working on something catchy.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens with a clever nod to The Wizard of Oz, beginning the story in black and white and old-style aspect ratio. Oscar (James Franco) is a circus magician and second rate huckster in a carnival traveling through Kansas. Forced to make a quick getaway after seducing the strongman's girlfriend, Oscar finds himself in a balloon in the middle of a tornado. After a rough ride that reminds the viewer of the kind of punishment that director Sam Raimi used to inflict on Bruce Campbell, Oscar awakens to find himself in the land of Oz, a magical realm that is both in color and widescreen. He immediately comes upon Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed good witch, who becomes convinced he is the prophetical Wizard that will fall from the sky to save Oz from the Wicked Witch. After he characteristically seduces her, she leads him to the Emerald City. There her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) rules, waiting for the Wizard to come and fulfill the prophecy. Oscar ventures out with a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) to find the Wicked Witch, and along the way meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), a good witch living in exile.
Anyone familiar with The Wizard of Oz knows that Glinda is good, and there are two wicked witches, hailing from east and west. As much as I hate spoilers, some are coming, so skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know specific plot points. Theodora's story forms one of the most interesting arcs of the film, particularly the buildup to her transformation into the Wicked Witch. Why and how she morphs into her more recognizable form is quite ingenious. Unfortunately Mila Kunis, who is a fine actress, can't hold a candle to the original Wicked Witch played in 1939 by Margaret Hamilton. She comes off as an almost cartoonish caricature.
The single biggest detriment to the film is the casting of James Franco as Oz. Sam Raimi originally wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play the Wizard, whose twinkly impishness would have been perfect for elevating the material. James Franco can be quite good (just see his work in 127 Hours) but he relies too much on his stoner-savant persona to convincingly portray an early 20th century charlatan. He was the wrong choice, and his jarring performance took me out of the movie.
The special effects in the film are both a blessing and a curse. There are several CG characters, and one of them, the China Girl (Joey King) is a real marvel; a delicate creature made of porcelain, she's a fully realized character who elicits real empathy. The movie is wall to wall effects, from the vistas of the land of Oz to the armies of flying baboons. The computer animation is fine, but like the worlds of the Star Wars prequels, none of it seems in the least bit realistic. Filmmakers would do well to embrace practical effects again, because there really is such a thing as CG overload.
There are some entertaining sequences, but there is very little originality in the plot. The film hits its story notes one at a time as if the screenwriters were following a diagram. This is a movie where the four leads are all past Oscar winners or nominees and none stands out. It's a colossal waste of talent both in front of and behind the camera that had the potential to be a whole lot better.